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Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations on Rêvolutions by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Introduction

Today a growing group of sonic artists engage with plants as collaborators in their processes and creations. The duo Feral Practice invites audience members to sound walks in forests to reflect on ecological and social issues in the vicinity of trees. Sound artist Mileece senses signals from plants to develop sound-generating algorithms that she combines with field recordings to design immersive sound installations, a technology akin to the one used by Tosca Terán to detect activity in mycorrhizal systems which she converts into musical notes. Cristina Ochoa and Eduardo Vindiola read signalling activity in beets and modulate their rhythmic patterns to perform with them. Leslie Garcia studies plant communication to design prosthetic devices that simulate an abstract voice for plants through a process of biofeedback.

The emergence and diversity of this creative field, which has evolved in reciprocation with experiments in bioacoustics and akin visual artworks, calls for considering a theory of its practice where its ethical principles are critical.

This essay will analyse the sound installation Rêvolutions [1] created by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot exhibited in the French Pavilion of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Here, a series of pine trees pulled off the ground, together with their earthed roots, are electrically stimulated with low-voltage pulses to which they respond by projecting noises, trembling, and sliding across the space. While the sliding mechanism is hidden, when looked at in detail reveals wheels.[2] 

To contextualise Rêvolutions, in 2007 Boursier-Mougenot premiered his installation From Here to Ear,[3] in which a group of zebra finch birds interact with a space intervened with electric guitars, amplifiers and seeds that encourage the birds to jump onto the guitar frets and create sounds. Despite its success, being exhibited by museums and galleries in Milan, Brisbane, Paris, London, and New York, researchers like Laura O’Brien questioned it after a potential lack of empathy and sensibility towards the birds. She inquires about aspects such as the confinement of the birds, their exposure to sounds that are not part of their environment and the lack of research from the artist on the potential stressful effects for the zebra finches.[4]

 

 

Context

In the wake of ecological philosophies and speculative ontologies, vegetal life suggests modes of being that invite us to establish more reciprocate and ecological relations with our habitat. Object-oriented ontology encourages us to express solidarity and open our sensibility toward non-human modes of being, subverting our biases and granting all human and non-human entities the same ecological and ontological relevance.[5] In this section, this essay will examine ethical aspects that come into play in the cooperation with vegetal organisms. Here, silence surfaces as a vulnerability towards the infra and ultra frequencies in which plants communicate, and as an action of muting oneself in favour of listening to their apparently silent beings.

In dialogue, author Prudence Gibson and philosopher Michael Marder,[6] discuss aspects pertaining to creative collaboration between humans and plants. Marder welcomes means of artistic expression that press outwards while withdrawing the pursuit of interiority when studying plants and their growth process. “Artists might facilitate vegetal self-expression, or, at a certain meta-level, express this expression with the vegetal world. Should they attempt to do so, they would not run into the dead-end of ‘speaking for’ plants, which, in the name of ethics, may turn out to be highly unethical (…)”[6] For Marder, expression embodies an outward spatial orientation capable of attending to the plasticity and fluidity of plants and vegetal life as materially embodied meaning. He suggests a vegetal model of aesthetic creation that doesn’t seek after a concealed inner core.[6]

Gibson perceives that artistic practice with vegetal life often treats plants as subjects without feelings in their pursuit of sensing them to create artworks: “Sticking probes into tree trunks or affixed onto leaves and roots can cause damage to the plants, perhaps even pain. Is it worth it? What are our moral obligations, as artists and writers, to show vegetal respect?”[6] Marder replies that if these artistic experiments were conducted on animals, they would be condemned, evidencing biases that privilege anthropomorphic and zoomorphic paradigms.  About the methodology of some of these artistic projects, he adds:

The sensors attached to leaves, trunks, and roots definitely sense something, but, in the process, what vanishes is the sensing of the plants themselves. We can pat ourselves on our backs for deriving such ‘information’ from them, but as soon as it has become nothing but information, the plant has already disappeared.(Michael Marder)[6]

Analysis

Picking up on Boursier-Mougenot’s Rêvolutions, the images and sounds of rooted pines in soil bulks sliding and trembling across the space while projecting noises raise questions. 

Long exposure to low voltage in humans can block electrical signals between the brain and muscles leading to irregular heart beating, preventing proper breathing and causing muscle spasms. The dangers of low current consists in the invisible way it attacks the organs transmitted through tissues with low resistance.[7]  While it is uncertain whether vegetal organisms experience sensations similar to pain, we can imagine that if Boursier-Mougenot developed this artwork with animals, it might encounter criticism. However, we expect that the artist researched these aspects, although there is no evidence of this in the press release and related publications. Are these concerns projecting anthropomorphic assumptions that disregard the difference between human and tree bodies?

There is an enormous difference between approaching vegetal organisms as instruments and collaborators in artmaking. The first assumption relegates them to malleable material requiring the artist’s agency to enter the aesthetic realm. The second one grants them similar cooperative and ethical considerations to those we have with fellow-humans. Considering the exposure to low voltage, we can infer that the trees here, rather than co-authors of Rêvolutions, are materials. In plant-human collaboration, the active participation and well-being of the plant actors should be a paradigm. This essay will examine the extent to which this was a consideration for Boursier-Mougenot.

For Giovanni Aloi (art researcher), the moving trees suggest the agency of plants, usually diminished in anthropocentric thought by their apparent stillness and passivity. [8] However, the idea of a plant that roams in space to indicate agency conditions their agency to a human-animal characteristic that renders us unable to sense place with the physicochemical detail and intensity that plants do. Instead of granting them agency, the artist is neglecting their actual agency by disregarding their unique sensibility to gravity, soil and water, only achievable by rooted beings

About this piece, Emma Lavigne, curator of the exhibit suggests that the intention of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot is to

(…) commandeer systems used for controlling living beings and their movements and compose a poetic work offering humanity living spaces marked by liberty and unconventional beauty. (…) a refuge where the visitor can find a place to relax -to float, as it were, on the semicircle of the steps which imitate those of the portico but adapt to the shape of the body- in a harmonious continuum conducive to reverie and reflection. (Emma Lavigne)[9]

Following up on plant-human collaboration, there is no account of the plant subjectivity in the conceptual construction of the Rêvolutions. There is no apparent interest in how they might feel or experience the artwork. The art piece operates between the artist’s mastery and desire and the public’s indulgence, which replicates the most insensitive mechanisms of consumerism. There is no evidence of the development of intersubjective conditions where the pines can create with their subjectivity. As much as the author wants us to believe the trees are exclusively moving by their agency, this argument is outweighed when we detect similar patterns of motion in Boursier-Mougenot’s Indexes where pianos slide across the exhibition room.

In his analysis of this artwork, Giovanni Aloi detects no ethical issues, at least in comparison to what deforestation and Christmas commercialism do to pines.[8]  However, this assertion would seem unsettling if we were speaking about harming animals as acceptable if the harm is carried out in less violent ways than the ways in which the food industry harms them.

For Quentin Hiernaux and Audra Mitchell, the ethics of human-plant relations are determined by the nature of these relations. We need to harm plants to eat and to do it we grant ourselves an amnesty funded by human survival. However, to what extent should we grant artmaking amnesty when subjects and objectify plants?

When Boursier-Mougenot removes the pines from their ground and inserts them into an art space, given the merest conditions in which they can survive, he is reducing the tree to their minimum ontological and environmental reducibility. He is denying the connectedness that completes the tree as part of a habitat that, in this installation, can be abbreviated to a chunk of dirt. This is similar to what Karl Marx perceives the capital does to their labour powerThese pines are not only physically removed from the ground. Their development in time is interrupted as if stills from a motion picture were detached, altering the narrative sense of the film.

In this concern. Are these trees thriving while receiving small but persistent electric charges? Are they blooming while being carried out by tiny wheels after millions of years of evolution as rooted and still organisms?

Having acknowledged that in Rêvolutions, the pines are not there to perform themselves but to perform as part of an idea that is only complete with them, it is clear that the artist needs them more than they need him. There is no visible reciprocity here which, in a thoroughly conceived artwork with living organisms, it should be.

In this piece, Boursier-Mougenot exposes the roots to the light, making visible a mechanism meant to operate underground in darkness. In return, the wheel mechanism of his artwork is perfectly hidden, concealing his instrumentalization and creating the illusion that they float. The exposed roots surface as loose ends gripping the trees to what is left from the missing part that fragments them. In this incompleteness, the artist’s agency comes into play to subject them to his desire and make them move, tremble and resonate like gigantic biomechatronic toys that amuse the audience. 

In Rêvolutions, the physicochemical vibratile mechanisms of trees’ growth, reproduction and communication, which are inaudible to our limited acoustic perception, become perceptible by intervening them with electric pulses. The projected resonances have noisy spectral qualities similar to sounds that in experiments have proven to be potentially detrimental for plants (C.B. Woodlief et al., Chowdhury, Gupta). Furthermore, pines are prone to stress by drought and stem and root cut to which they react by imploding tiny bubbles in their xylem. What we hear in Rêvolutions, likely encompasses the signalling of the tree’s lament. As soothing and relaxing as Emma Lavigne describes the experience, it might as well be an unsettling one.

If Boursier-Mougenot is interested in guiding the audience to the imperceptible yet rich sonic realm of trees, his attempt was feeble. As Luce Irigaray suggests: “(…) silence is the origin and the medium that allows us to listen to another living being.”[10]  In the desire to overthrow the stillness of trees, the artist is shutting down the door to attend to the factual vibratility of the trees in that the mechanisms developed instead of giving the human ear prosthetic means to listen to the trees they infuse electricity that deforms the frequencies at which trees resonate, giving them a voice that is not theirs.

Reflections

As Quentin Hiernaux suggests, each plant organism and group develop their strategies based on their specific genetic substance and environmental conditions.[11] Rêvolutions, embodies the agency of the technologies of capitalism in vegetal life, impacting them from within and without. As we can agree with Aloi, [8] the pines of Boursier-Mougenot grow for consumption in vast industrialized forests, where they are genetically modified for massive reproduction. However, it is the replication of these structures of subjection and consumption in the art space that is disputable in a biopolitical context where we look to plants for means to establish reciprocate and ecological relations with our vegetal vicinity. The noisy trees suggest a devitalization of the sonic field denying us from listening to the vulnerable sensibilities of plants. Instead, the treated pines reveal the shared vegetal-human subjection to capitalist technologies. A subjection operating in the interference between plan and human sensibilities, desensitising, debilitating and eventually disconnecting us. Rather than bringing together humans and trees, Rêvolutions deepens the big divide.

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Photos courtesy of Boursier-Mougenot

1 Boursier-Mougenot, C. (2015) Rêvolution.
2 Ward, O. (2015) Pavilion party: the 20 best artistic offerings from the Venice Biennale 2015. Wallpaper. https://www.wallpaper.com/gallery/art/pavilion-party-the-20-best-artistic-offerings-from-the-venice-biennale-2015
3 Boursier-Mougenot, C. (2010) From Here to Ear.
4 O’Brien, L. (2016) The Ethics of Instrumentalization. Drain Magazine.
5 Morton, T. (2017) Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso.
http://drainmag.com/the-ethics-of-instrumentalization-celeste-boursier-mougenots-from-here-to-ear-at-the-montreal-museum-of-fine-art/
6 Gibson, P. (2018) Covet Plants. Punctum Books.
7 HSE website https://www.hse.gov.uk/electricity/injuries.htm
8 Aloi, G (2022) Plant-capital: objectification and agency in a consumerist world. Lecture at Spencer Museum of Art.
9 Biennial Foundation website https://biennialfoundation.org/2015/04/the-project-revolutions-by-artist-celeste-boursier-mougenot-accompanied-by-curator-emma-lavigne-will-transform-the-french-pavilion-into-an-oneiric-and-organic-island/ 
10 Irigaray, L., Marder, M. (2016) Through Vegetable Being. Columbia University Press.
11 Hiernaux, Q. (2021) The Ethicsof Plant Flourishing and Agricultural Ethics: Theoretical Distinctions and Concrete Recommendations in Light of the Environmental Crisis. Philosophies ,6,

 

 

 

David Vélez

David Vélez (PhD) is a Colombian sonic artist studying the acoustics of food, working in the intersection between sound ethnography and plant bioacoustics. His work oversteps the boundaries of installation art, field recordings, composition, performance and commensality exploring gardens, kitchens and open food markets as exhibition spaces. Vélez is interested in the strategic artistic possibility of sound and its invisible, immersive, unstable and fluctuating material, attrubutes shared with the nourishing transference of energy in food.